Warning! This essay contains sweeping generalizations, multiple contradictions, non-linear reasoning (when there is any reasoning at all) and extreme kvetching.
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I’m tired of seeing everyone walking around staring at their phones, or with earbuds jammed into their ears—or both; looking up with that vacant, slightly irritated look just before they’re about to walk right into you. On the bus, everyone—all ages, staring at these machines; mesmerized by the little rectangle in in their palm.
Everywhere I go in the city, I see hundreds of people on the street (mostly below 40 years old) clutching their phones in their hands as they walk. A text or an e-mail might come in any second and they need to be instantly ready to respond to it.
The phone seems to be an actual extension of the skin and bones of their hand; a necessary part of life, as much as any of their major organs. I think that these phones are the new umbilical cord, connecting entire generations to the new great mother—the all-encompassing Social Network and the Internet.
A friend of mine used to say: “You don’t watch TV, TV watches you…
How many hours a day—total—does the average person stare at some text or graphic rolling or bursting or jumping across a glass screen? All these devices; televisions, computers, cell-phones, are parts of a larger whole that exerts an incalculable pull—stronger than any addictive drug. And because this phenomenon is so pervasive, so universal, people don’t even realize they are addicted.
According to a recent NY Times article, there is an “unofficial” term for this addiction: Internet Addiction Disorder, or IAD. Of course, the more people use the term (like I just did), the more official it will become. Probably the only reason it hasn’t found its way into the DSM is because every shrink on the planet suffers from the disease.
A new study by Facebook shows that users (what better word?!) spend an average of fifty minutes a day on Facebook and its other programs, Instagram and WhatsApp.
Then there’s the 2.8 hours that the average American spends watching TV. And how much time do people spend using their smart phones—one hour, two hours a day? Then there are the millions of us who spend an additional six to eight hours per day at their offices or at home, glued to screens full of text, figures or graphics.
So, for tens of millions of people (maybe hundreds of millions when you consider all the people in India and Mexico you speak to if you have trouble with your phone or computer), staring at an electronic device takes up the major portion of their waking hours. At a certain point, you have to conclude that this activity is not voluntary any more. We are no longer independent, living, breathing humans making informed (or even uninformed) choices, but have become merely tiny, insignificant blips on a vast electronic screen.
We imagine we have all these thousands of choices—everything is advertised that way: “Build your own personal network—choose the app you want!” But really, the situation is just the opposite. Despite all the talk about personal choice and control, we are caught in the great information/communication grid the same way a hapless fly is trapped in a spider’s web.
Everywhere, people are looking at these machines, talking, scrolling, swiping, tapping… It’s wonderful to be in touch with other people or to be entertained or informed—but every minute?
Now, God knows I suffer from just the opposite problem. I’ve always felt disconnected from other people and my general environment. But it seems to me that I’m now living in a world where the opposite is true; nobody is out of touch with someone or something every moment of their lives.
But, like I said, maybe it’s just my problem. That could easily be. Just about everyone I know—people older than I am—has a smart phone. I was always an extreme technophobe and I’m terribly rigid about accepting or learning anything new in my life.
However, if the world is, on balance, a better place; more informed and more connected than it was before; if people’s lives are made safer and easier by these wunder-gadgets, then I should just grow up and get a smart phone too—or, at the very least, keep my complaints to myself. But will I? No.
I wonder, what did people do before they had these devices? They still waited on lines, sat at bus stops or in waiting rooms, rode the buses and trains, and walked down the street, thinking about the world around them or their personal lives. But now the available times and places where worry or reflection or just plain silent contemplation used to take place have been—for most people—eliminated. We have been provided with the means to escape even the possibility of a moment’s boredom, confusion or doubt.
No longer do we have to confront and try to make sense of the larger, troubling, unmanageable world; we have reduced it to a small screen that we can control and direct as if we were mini- gods moving people and events around like pawns on a chess board—or so we imagine. But even as we peer into our tiny, programmed universes, the actual world is becoming more troubling and unmanageable every day.
Maybe we’ve just ordered a new pair of headphones, or we’re finishing up a game of Angry Birds—or clicking on a petition to fight global warming, and we look up to see… President Trump (!) being sworn in on the steps of the Capital, or look down and see the ocean has risen another inch and we are standing in seawater.
But that’s ok—if we’re getting the news on the tiny screen we can just close that window and check our Facebook page for the latest message—or click on our Hits of The Eighties playlist.
Really, I’m only being partially sarcastic. How could I not understand the urge to escape from the uncomfortable realities of existence? It’s been my major way of dealing with life since I was a child. Certainly, the world seems to be more superficial, bizarre (President Trump!) and overwhelming every day. The urge to plunge in to the Net and surf its sparkling waves is very, very strong.
Just to make it clear, my observations are only about Manhattan—where my current life circumstances cause me to spend a whole lot of time walking on the streets and traveling on buses.
Ever since I was a kid I never liked Manhattan. When I had to take the occasional trip into “the city” from my very quiet, little Queens neighborhood, I was always overwhelmed by the size of the buildings, the great noisy floods of traffic, the mind-numbing carnival of sights and sounds.
I still feel that way—but I’m sure I’m in the minority.
There are always some people who just don’t have a thick enough skin to shield them from the crush and thump of the city; people whose nervous systems can’t take the overload.
Save for a few small neighborhoods and peaceful side-streets (and the parks at certain times of the day) most of Manhattan is uglier, noisier and more crowded now than it has ever been. Dedicated bike and bus lanes have made the already overcrowded streets and avenues even more impossible for cars and vans to negotiate. There are double and triple-parked trucks everywhere. And there is hardly a street in the borough that isn’t being torn up by work crews from Con Edison or men laying down new sewer or water pipes, or more crews from Verizon and Time Warner and who knows what other company or government agency installing, replacing or repairing cables.
Buildings are constantly being knocked down and new ones, usually twenty story co-ops or office buildings, are being put up. So when you step out the door or travel anywhere you are barraged by the sounds of heavy construction—power drills, jack-hammers; pounding, screeching, buzzing. And the new buildings are soul-less towers of steel and glass—looking like upright, polished mausoleums.
Everywhere, there are more and more homeless or just plain crazy people, lying on the sidewalks under filthy blankets or cardboard boxes—or begging or just gibbering and exuding sheer misery. On the buses, you see poor, tired people with all their worldly belongings in bags or shopping carts who just ride back and forth all day long to keep out of the rain and cold.
So why not block out the ugliness, the noise, the chaos, the filth, the crowds and the misery? Why not just put your head down and check your messages and text or talk or visit your favorite websites or plug in your favorite music. It seems like the only logical, sane alternative.
And yet…even if it’s the only way to stay sane in the city, I can never seem to get used to all these phones and devices.
A couple of years ago I read yet another study that found that people were disconcerted by all these one way conversations because in a usual conversation you can see both people and hear both sides of the conversation… But if you only see and hear one side of a conversation it creates a sensory imbalance. You’re auditing multiple monologues that seem to be senseless and without context. And since you don’t hear the other side of the conversation, your mind automatically strains to fill in the blanks, thus drawing you into conversations you would ordinarily tune out. I guess the only way to deal with this discordant symphony is to plug in and tune out yourself.
Everyone is texting or on the phone… On the weekends it’s fathers in the playground, pushing swings with one hand, holding the phone with the other—not even looking at their own kid’s face lighting up with the sheer thrill of flying through the air.
Maybe they will stop talking or staring at the phone long enough to take a picture of their child on the swing—a precious moment to save forever—Then they can get back to whatever absolutely essential thing has commanded their attention on the little screen.
…And the nannies pushing toddlers in their strollers; the kids depressed and slack-jawed while the women jabber away on their phones, trying to manage their own lives at home in the Bronx or Brooklyn while wheeling these poor little rich kids around.
On the bus just the other day, a kid, maybe one-and-a-half, was crying; working himself into a real tantrum, while his nanny was ignoring him, listening to music with ear-buds and texting someone at the same time. When he got really loud, she said: “What did I say? What do you get from whining and crying? That’s right, nothing.”
And what do you think this poor kid will get from not whining and crying? That’s right, nothing.
I felt like telling her to take out the ear-buds, put the phone away, look at this child and talk to him, soothe him and give him to understand that he is cared for. But since this is the Brave New World, I would be the one who was in the wrong. I would be the one arrested for felonious assault on the Social Network.
And it’s not just the nannies either—often it’s the mothers, holding their kid’s hand or pushing them in strollers, while talking compulsively to someone about something. Maybe it’s important. Probably it’s not. What’s is important is that, for decades now, many kids are growing up without the most basic eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart connection to their parents. It’s only inevitable that they will, just for emotional protection, become narcissistic themselves and wind up using their phones as replacement for real connection or intimacy. And so it goes, text without end, Amen…
And then there are the hands free people… The wires hanging down. They are also talking to some who is not right there beside them, and from what little I can hear of their conversations as they pass by or as I walk next to them for a bit, it’s just stupid chatter.
There are no appointments being made, God knows, no emergency… Sometimes I get on an elevator in a public building and someone says something. I assume, since I’m the only one on the elevator with them, they’re talking to me. I say “excuse me?” or, “Well, I don’t know if…” But then I realize they’re not talking to me, they’re talking to someone who’s not there. Such incidents make you feel more isolated than you would if you had just gotten on and stood there in mutual silence.
The hands-free (sensitivity-free) people are of a kind. They’re probably natural loud-mouths and insensitive assholes to begin with. They appear to be equally balanced between male and female and they tend to be more overweight than not.
I’m sure they talk too loud and monopolize the conversation when they’re actually with the other people, just like they eat more than their share of food—so this technology is right up their alley—which is where I’d like to stuff their phones if I had the option. There’s not enough noise in Manhattan already—these people have to add to it with their gaseous, self-centered blathering.
The hands-free boors are a variant of the who-gives-a-shit-if-there-are-other-people-on-the-bus pigs, who will carry on mostly needless conversations (again, obviously monopolizing the dialogue with their invisible partners), oblivious to the frowns and stares of other people seated around them. I believe it should be legal (after a warning by the driver) for any citizen to take these people’s phones away and toss them out the window.
…Used to be, riding in an elevator, passing by someone on the street, riding on the bus, it was just people joined together or crossing paths on a short journey. But at least there was a sense of shared, common humanity and an unspoken understanding that we were all temporarily in tight quarters and we should respect other people’s boundaries.
Now? Forget-about-it. It’s more than likely you will be exposed, (much like exposure to a toxic substance or radiation) to brainless chatter and glowing bone-white little rectangles of jumping messages, ninety-nine percent of which is meaningless and unnecessary. No wonder the USA is the most drug-addicted country in the world. Subtract all the devices, especially the phones and there would 50% less need for sedatives and opioids (although it’s probably a good idea to save the dope for when President Trump (!) gets sworn in).
Is this a generational thing—something younger people do because they don’t know any other way of being? Maybe not.
My friends, all my age or older, are very much into their devices. BUT—if they have to use their phones in an enclosed space or on the street, even just to glance at them, they’d try to be a least a bit surreptitious about it—and if they actually did make or take a call, they’d say, “I can’t really talk because I’m on the bus…”
Still, even with them, all I have to do is say I’m going the kitchen to get a glass of water or I have to use the bathroom, and zip!, they’ve put pulled out their phones to check their messages or send a text. Conversations get interrupted by various ring tones and I hear “Sorry, I have to take this.” I guess they do.
The great irony with all this constant communication is that it is all one-sided. That is—everyone is talking to or texting with some invisible person, but that per se, separates them even more distinctly from the people around them. So we have the strange phenomenon of more communication and less at the same time. It’s not just a lonely crowd now, it’s a lonely, noisy crowd.
I preferred the time when there was just silence on the bus or the elevator (even if it was uncomfortable) or people sitting next to each other talking in person. Without all these flipping, glowing, noisy distractions, you could center yourself, reflect on things, internal and external. Communal silence (group meditation, prayer, etc.) is a powerful way to feel truly joined to other people and to the larger verities of eternity. If you want such dedicated communal activities you can always find them—just not in any public place anymore.
…Ah well, fuck it. Things are the way they are.
I should just join the 21st century and get a smart phone (and throw out the antique Radio Shack dumb phone I have now). Then I could see the person I’m talking to—what a miracle that is! I could make minor motion pictures and, and… What else?
I don’t know. What else would I really need to do with a telephone beside speak to someone? I don’t need to check my messages or my Facebook page—I already, like many other people, do that too much. I don’t own any stock, so I don’t have to check to see if it went down or up. And I sure as hell don’t want to know which market place or sports arena just got blown up or read the latest statement by whichever hypocritical bullshit artist is running for dictator.
Nor do I want to overload my brain with graphic images of insanity or inanity from some video game or see cute videos of puppies with advertisements for pet food preceding them. These days, most of my appointments are with doctors and their offices always call a day or two in advance to confirm them—so I wouldn’t be missing anything there.
On the other hand, it would be useful to get out of my own head for even a few minutes. Better I should, like most of my fellow New-Yorkers, stare at a screen, or text someone, or listen to an audio book, than to keep neurotically drilling down the dry well of my own past.
So, look for me on the street or on the bus. I’ll be the one clutching their phone for dear life, flying fingers texting everybody I know—or plugged into Youtube, listening to my favorite band from The Sixties. I will have joined the modern world and I will finally be happy.